Georgia under President Mikheil Saakashvili has been hailed by Western governments as an example of a successful transition to democracy in the former Soviet Union. However, the fragility of Georgias commitment to human rights and the rule of law was revealed on November 7, 2007, when government forces used violent and excessive force to disperse a series of largely peaceful demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi. In the course of breaking up the demonstrations law enforcement officers hastily resorted to the use of teargas and rubber bullets. Police and other law enforcement personnel, many of them masked, pursued fleeing demonstrators of all ages, kicking and punching them and striking them with truncheons, wooden poles, and other objects. Heavily armed special troops raided the private television station Imedi, threatening and ejecting the staff and damaging or destroying much of the stations equipment. Outside the studios, Imedi staff and their supporters found themselves set upon by riot police again using teargas and rubber bullets and pursuing those who fled. Extensive photographic and video evidence captured that day by journalists and others illustrates these incidents.
The violence capped several days of peaceful demonstrations by Georgias opposition parties and supporters, who were calling for parliamentary elections to be held in early 2008 and for the release of individuals whom they consider political prisoners, among other demands. It contrasted sharply with the reputation the Georgian governmentbrought to power by the 2003 Rose Revolutionhad cultivated for being committed to human rights and the rule of law.
The Georgian government denies the widespread use of violence against demonstrators. It maintains that law enforcement officers used legitimate means to disperse protestors who were holding illegal demonstrations, and accuses demonstrators of initiating violence against police. The government also claims that opposition leaders intended to use protestors to storm Parliament as part of an alleged Russian-backed coup attempt, in which Imedi television was playing an instrumental role.
The situation on November 7 was extremely tense, and the Georgian government faced an enormous challenge in retaining law and order. Many demonstrators refused to follow initial police orders to disperse, and there were instances of protestors attacking individual police officers, particularly later in the day. It is the right and duty of any government to stop such attacks. However in doing so, governments are obligated to respect basic human rights standards governing the use of force in police operations. These universal standards are embodied in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials,1 which state, [w]henever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.2 In accordance with its obligations as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the government of Georgia is responsible for the injuries caused by law enforcement officials to demonstrators and bystanders and has the burden to demonstrate with convincing arguments that the use of force was not excessive.
The circumstances described in this report do not justify the level of violence used against demonstrators documented here, particularly given that many of those beaten were peaceful protestors, protestors attempting to disperse, or individuals merely observing the events or coming to the aid of victims of police violence.
The physical assaults on these individuals by Georgian law enforcement officers were not a legitimate method of crowd dispersal and resulted in a large number of serious human rights violations, all of which must be thoroughly investigated. Georgian law enforcement officers resorted too quickly to the use of force, including simultaneous use of canisters of teargas and rubber bullets, without fully exhausting non-violent methods of crowd dispersal. There was no apparent measured or proportionate escalation of the use of force either to disperse demonstrators or to respond to sporadic violence.
The raid on and closure of Imedi television was a violation of Georgias commitments to guaranteeing freedom of expression. The legal basis for the decision to raid and close Imedi has been seriously called into question, and there is evidence to suggest that the legal basis was established after-the-fact and backdated. The governments allegation that a single broadcast by Imedi posed an urgent threat to public security is also questionable and deserves further scrutiny. In any case, the raid on Imedi using hundreds of heavily-armed law enforcement officers, which was initiated without warning against hundreds of journalists and other staff, was clearly disproportionate to the threat posed by unarmed Imedi personnel and an act of intimidation unjustified by the actions of Imedi television or any of its staff, leadership, or ownership.
On November 2, a coalition of Georgian opposition parties led a demonstration on the steps of Parliament and on Rustaveli Avenue in the center of Tbilisi. Many were opposition supporters but many also came out to protest what they perceived to be government corruption and failures to deliver on promised political and economic reforms. Approximately 50,000 people participated on the first day. On subsequent days, the opposition continued to hold a demonstration in front of Parliament, with the number of supporters steadily decreasing. Several people had announced a hunger strike on November 4 and they, together with a few other supporters, spent each subsequent night on the steps of Parliament.
Human Rights Watch documented excessive use of police force at four demonstrations on November 7. Early that morning, police without warning charged the approximately 70 people who had spent the night on the steps of Parliament, pulling them off the steps and beating several of them. Also beaten were a few other demonstrators and supporters who tried to resist police attempts to remove the hunger strikers. Policemen also confiscated the cameras and equipment of several journalists and arrested Giorgi Khaindrava, an opposition leader and the former minister of conflict resolution.
Later that morning, when demonstrators gathered in front of Parliament, some tried unsuccessfully to push through a police cordon on Rustaveli Avenue. Eventually protestors became too numerous to fit on the steps and sidewalk in front of Parliament, and they forced their way through the police cordon and onto Rustaveli Avenue. There were some altercations between police and protestors and incidents of police force against protestors. Police arrested some demonstrators.
Riot police and other law enforcement officers assembled on Rustaveli Avenue, ordered the crowd to disperse, and warned that legal means of crowd dispersal would be used. When most demonstrators did not heed the request, riot police briefly sprayed the front lines of protestors with water cannons. Most demonstrators still did not disperse. Without subsequent warnings, law enforcement officers then launched a volley of teargas canisters into the crowd and opened fire with rubber bullets, causing demonstrators to flee immediately in the few directions available and into nearby buildings. Riot police and other law enforcement officials, many in black masks and all without any identification, pursued the dispersing protestors and attacked them with fists, kicks, truncheons, wooden poles, and other objects.
As demonstrators dispersed through the side streets leading away from Rustaveli Avenue, some of them joined a large number of additional demonstrators to gather at the other end of Rustaveli Avenue, from the direction of Republican Square. When this crowd did not disperse, law enforcement officials again used large volumes of teargas and rubber bullets against the crowd. A few demonstrators damaged a police car and others threw stones and active teargas canisters at riot police. Police beat individual fleeing demonstrators.
Seeing that the majority of demonstrators were unwilling to disperse, opposition leaders called on people to go to Rike, a large open area several kilometers from the city center with no through streets. Riot police and other law enforcement personnel essentially surrounded the protestors at Rike, fired teargas and rubber bullets at them, and again pursued and attacked individual demonstrators, many of whom were attempting to flee. At Rike there were several incidents of attacks by demonstrators on police, some of them quite violent.
At approximately 8:45 p.m., after all demonstrators at Rike had been dispersed, hundreds of special forces troops armed with machine guns and other weapons entered the Imedi television studios, and forced journalists and other staff members to lie on the floor with their hands behind their heads, deliberately intimidating them by pointing guns to their heads and with aggressive language. The government troops forced Imedi off the air, after anchors managed to describe the raid to viewers in the final minutes of broadcasting. Journalists and other staff were forced to leave the studios and troops damaged or destroyed much of the stations equipment. Imedi was founded by Badri Patarkatsishvili, an exiled Georgian businessman, and is partly owned by Rupert Murdochs News Corporation.
After seeing Imedi forced off the air on live television, dozens of relatives and friends of Imedi staff members and Imedi supporters gathered outside of the Imedi studios. As Imedi staff, forced by police to leave the property, also gathered outside the studios main gate, riot police and other law enforcement agents fired teargas and rubber bullets into the small crowd and pursued people as they fled, attacking them with truncheons and fists and firing rubber bullets. During the operations on Rustaveli Avenue and Rike, law enforcement agents had also targeted journalists, including both Imedi journalists and others.
The Georgian government has said it was facing the threat of a coup detat organized by opposition leaders with support from the Russian counter-intelligence service. The government claims to possess recordings of phone conversations and video recordings of opposition leaders meeting with members of Russian intelligence. The authorities also claim that Badri Patarkatsishvili, who openly provided financial support to opposition parties in Georgia, had called for the overthrow of the government.3 The coup detat figures prominently in contemporary Georgian history, and Russia and Georgia have a tense political relationship. Most significantly, Georgia accuses Russia of seeking to undermine its territorial integrity through its open support of Georgias two breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Human Rights Watch cannot assess the validity of the above claims, they have no bearing on the governments obligation to respect basic human rights and to ensure that law enforcement officials respond to protests in a lawful and proportionate manner. Similarly, the governments response to any perceived threat posed by Imedi television was clearly excessive and a violation of freedom of expression guaranteed under Georgian and international law.
Georgias international partners, including, most prominently, the United States and the European Union, have provided unwavering support for President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government since the Rose Revolution brought it to power. Georgia has been seen as a small but crucial bulwark to counter Russian dominance in the region and as an important ally for the United States. It has also been held up as an example of a successful transition to democracy in the former Soviet Union region. As a result, the US and EU have refrained from criticizing Saakashvili in public and from engaging in robust discussion of the countrys human rights problems. They have relied on the Georgian governments repeatedly-stated good intentions and promises of reform, ignoring warning signs that the government was not only failing to live up to the principles of the rule of law and human rights it espoused during the Rose Revolution, but taking many serious steps to undermine these principles. Among them has been the dangerous mix of a quick resort to use of force by law enforcement agents, the willingness at the highest levels of government to condone these actions, often publicly, and a failure to ensure accountability for abuses committed by law enforcement agents.
Human Rights Watch is calling on the Georgian government to conduct a thorough and independent investigation, in line with human rights standards, into the dispersal of protestors on November 7, 2007, including into all allegations of assault and the excessive use of force by law enforcement personnel. Human Rights Watch calls on the Ministry of Interior to make public the exact composition of forces engaged in the dispersal of protestors to ensure full transparency and accountability for the actions of law enforcement. The General Prosecutors Office should conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations of intimidation and ill-treatment of Imedi journalists during the raid on Imedi and into the allegations of destruction and theft of Imedi equipment and property. Georgias international partners should offer, where appropriate, expertise and assistance to the Georgian government in fulfilling these recommendations. They should also include as a principle benchmark for further assistance to and deepening engagement with Georgia the governments commitment to ensuring accountability for human rights abuses, including the abuses documented in this report.
1 Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Eighth U.N. Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, 27 August to 7 September 1990, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 at 112 (1990).
2 Ibid., principles 4 and 5.
3 Patarkatsishvili said in a statement, "Let no one have doubts that all my forces, all my financial resources until the last tetri [Georgian monetary unit] will be used to free Georgia of this fascist regime," Giorgi Lomsadze, Georgia Grapples with Restricted News Coverage, EurasiaNet, November 8, 2007, http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav110807a.shtml (accessed November 29, 2007).